Conservatives attack £1 million community sport grant

Screenshot 2023-03-26 at 22.16.14

A minority of Conservative councillors, Cllr Dave Arnott, Cllr Bethany Sharp, Cllr Lewis Quigg and Cllr Chris McManus has broken ranks and written to the chief executive of Oldham Metropolitan Borough raising concerns over a £1 million pound community sport grant that will see the town’s two professional football and rugby league teams, the Latics and the Roughyeds, brought together at a revitalised Boundary Park.

It is not known if the other five Tory councillors who sit on Oldham Council were invited to join the protest against the grant; their Group Leader, Cllr Graham Sheldon, his Deputy, Cllr Pam Byrne, Cllr Robert Barnes, Cllr Luke Lancaster and Cllr Max Woodvine.

What is known is that Cllr Quigg and Cllr Sheldon had a robust disagreement before the last Full Council meeting on 15th March, 2023 and that tensions are high between the Tories representing the more central wards in Oldham, rather than the calmer blue waters in Saddleworth – and have been for quite some time: It has previously been reported, exclusively on Neil Wilby Media, that the noisiest of the Saddleworth group, Cllr Woodvine, amongst others, describes his Oldham counterparts as ‘not proper Tories’ (read more here). An assertion that the ‘improper Tories’ have never sought to correct, publicly.

Cllr Quigg, who appears to be leading the breakaway group, says:

“Due process means we must be clear headed and factual in our response to the £1 million of taxpayers money being handed over to a private business, in OAFC. Our aim is simple, we must deliver the best possible outcome for all, especially you the taxpayer and those who have seen so much disappointment before.

“We cannot in a time where we have a cost of living crisis allow the significant sum of £1 million to be handed out without proper scrutiny and due diligence. This is coming from the capital budget and is the equivalent of a 1% council tax rise. It is why we must demand cast iron guarantees.

“We could have all been brought onboard and provided our feedback. Instead we have as an opposition been be shut out, and pushed away whilst this has been pushed forward without the proper accountability that should and could have been provided.

“It is why we have written to the Chief Executive of Oldham Council to get those answers.

“Sorry, but the Leader of the Council is not the organ grinder here and we want a full response. We must endeavour in a democracy, no matter how unpopular it may first seem to hold the Council to account and provide answers where there are none. In order for this or anything else to succeed we must be resolute in asking difficult and at times honest questions”.

Cllr Sharp adds, regarding her own ward: “Your St James Conservatives are big supporters of OAFC, but serious questions need to be asked about this funding”.

Neither Cllr Quigg nor Cllr Sharp make any mention of Oldham RLFC (or Roughyeds as they are familiarly known) at all in either their commentary or letter. Made even more bizarre as Cllr Arnott regularly presents himself as a rugby fan and Cllr Byrne, who is not part of the Tory breakaway group, is a Roughyed supporter. Bethany’s ward is close to the former and iconic Watersheddings HQ of the famous old rugby league team and her constituents may well have more supporters of that sport than football.

This is the full text of the breakaway Conservatives letter to the chief executive, Harry Catherall (pictured above second left):

“Dear Mr Catherall,

“We are writing to you following the announcement of a £1,000,000 grant to Oldham Athletic AFC LTD (OAFC Ltd). We are addressing this to you because this is an incredibly important matter, and more importantly we do not wish to engage with the Leader of the Council as these matters deserve clarity and a serious response.

“Having read the Cabinet papers there are many commendable points that aim to provide community access and activities which we can all welcome for the people of this Borough.

“However, there are several questions due to the growing list of promises being made to various groups and organisations. In the absence of tangible information, such as who will have access to the pitch and when, and what other facilities will be available during the Football season and Rugby season can you please provide some clarity to our questions.

“Given various stakeholders appeared on the pitch of OAFC Ltd to announce the deal, was time not put aside to discuss this at full Council on the 15/03/23? This would have been an ideal opportunity for everyone to better understand and discuss how the town could maximise and scrutinise any opportunities from this, given it is using taxpayer’s money.
Can you confirm that no existing budgets will be reduced by a similar amount to fund this? This is of course the equivalent of a 1% increase in council tax.

“What binding agreement will be put in place to protect the £1,000,000 grant and guarantee the use of all the facilities at OAFC Ltd, which we presume having read the papers, grants access to facilities and what penalties and clauses will be put in place to protect taxpayer’s money and access to said facilities, which we assume will be free of charge?

“Many have noted a volte-face from the Council when it advised only recently that it “cuts the grass and empties the bins”, when it was discussing the future of Oldham Coliseum Theatre Ltd, but in this instance, it is funding OAFC Ltd with a £1,000,000 grant. There are many local sports pitches that are in a desperate need of funding and improvement, so will the Council be match funding them or allowing them the same ability to access funds in the same way OAFC Ltd has? We all have in our wards clubs and organisations who could readily benefit from such a grant.

“It is worth noting that whilst you were not Chief Executive of Oldham Council at the time, that this grant comes on top of a previous grant as part of the purchasing of Lancaster Club in 2011 with the previous owners, which in the end led to a disastrous period for the club, despite the £5.7 million deal with the Council.

“There have also been questions raised over potential conflicts of interest. As such can you provide clarity as to the legal advice provided and that any potential conflict of interest/s have been properly addressed and declared, and that all due diligence or necessary measures were put in place to protect the fairness of the process and in particular those involved? More importantly will this information be made publicly available?

“Given this, can you provide a timeline of discussions, between OAFC Ltd and Oldham Council, who was present, what the topic of discussion was and when these meetings were held?

“Given the full Council could not scrutinise this grant, and the announcement was made to the press first on the 16/03/23 and then trailed for four days on the Councils social media platforms, and was not announced after it was agreed at the Cabinet, who made that decision and why? The meeting of Cabinet was held on the 20/03/23, this does suggest the Cabinet was only there to rubber stamp a done deal and not there to provide answers or scrutiny as would be expected of Cabinet members.

We ask these questions in a clear and constructive way because as an opposition in a democracy we have the right to hold this Council to account.

We therefore look forward to your reply.”

Lewis Quigg
Councillor | Royton North Ward

Dave Arnott
Councillor | Royton North Ward

Beth Sharp
Councillor | St. James’ Ward

Chris McManus
Councillor | Saddleworth South Ward

Notwithstanding Cllr Quigg’s latest gratuitous smear against her, specifically in his letter to her chief executive, the Oldham Council Leader, Cllr Amanda Chadderton (pictured above centre), has been asked to provide a statement regarding the latest Conservative action in holding her administration to account. She has been a prime mover and enthusiastic supporter of the grant. As have many other leading politicians and influencers in the Borough. But, most crucially and on any objective view, the funding has received overwhelming public support.

Former Labour Party voluntary officer (as Secretary or Chair), Jeremy Sutcliffe, also a retired deputy head teacher, councillor for thirteen years and a passionate Oldhamer involved in local politics for over 55 years, says:

“Interesting to see whether the renegade Tories have got it right on this one. The first thing to note is that, like the Booker Prize for Literature entry that it submitted at the last Council Meeting, it is clear indication that Oldham’s Conservative Council Group is not acting as a cohesive group and lacks the discipline to be an effective administration.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the last time Oldhamers in general had a spring in their step was when both Latics and the Roughy’eads were both in their respective top flights. Now, after a long time in the doldrums for both clubs and the stadium, things are looking up, though for the clubs there’s a long way to climb.

“Worth noting that the Renegades do make the point that the £1m for Boundary Park is both Capital Funding and an investment which helps overall to neutralise detractors who might complain about expenditure from Council Tax and use the “w” word”.

two-chairmen oldham rothwell hamilton

The Leader of the Opposition on Oldham Council, Cllr Howard Sykes, has been approached for a statement.

UPDATE: The Council Leader’s statement has spawned a new article headlined ‘Council Leader kicks Tories all over the park’ and which can be read at this weblink here.

Page last updated Monday 27th March, 2023 at 1840hrs

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Picture credits: Oldham Council

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© Neil Wilby 2015-2023. Unauthorised use, or reproduction, of the material contained in this article, without permission from the author, is strictly prohibited. Extracts from, and links to, the article (or blog) may be used, provided that credit is given to Neil Wilby Media, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Published by Neil Wilby

Former Johnston Press area managing director. Justice campaigner. Freelance investigative journalist.

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